This was supposed to have been a story about an Akron man who has taken the world by the horns, pummeled the world into submission, wrung from the world big bucks and a regional popularity verging on worship.
But it turned out to be just another story about just another man, a fragile, transient man who -- like all the rest of us -- is periodically reminded that mortality lives just down the block.
This story was going to open with a scene of Akron native Nate Thurmond driving merrily across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a sunny afternoon in early October. It was going to note the Tracy Chapman tape cranked up on the car stereo and the sunroof peeled back to reveal the glistening, legendary skyline of downtown San Francisco.
It was going to tell you how a man working at the Bay Bridge toll booth, a man in his 50s, a man without a name, instantly recognized our Akron son and greeted him as "Mr. Thurmond" with a mixture of excitement and awe.
But the song Nate Thurmond should have been playing on his car stereo that day, was Roadhouse Blues by the late Jim Morrison. The one that goes: "The future's uncertain and the end is always near."
Because a few days later, Hall of Fame basketball player Nate Thurmond, 6-foot-11-inch Nate Thurmond, Rolls-Royce-owning Nate Thurmond, would come within a few hours of being crunched into lifelessness on that same Bay Bridge or on the nearby Nimitz Freeway, places that took the lives of people such as Joshua Castillo, 4, and Kirk Johnston, 35, and Mary Washington, 72 -- people you have never heard of, and never will again.
Not one whit of impermanence occurred to Thurmond's visitor back in early October. His story appeared to be a glorious slice of life to be passed along as permanent, a slice of a glorious life that would engender in Akron readers a mixture of envy and pride.
It was to tell how San Franciscans had left their hearts with the big man from Akron, and how the big man had gracefully climbed up the city's steepest streets and perched on its cable-carred summit.
But that original script just doesn't fly. When your man dodges a bullet the size of a 7.1 Richter reading, you can't walk away with the same tale. Otherwise, the bullet was wasted. Otherwise, lives were wasted.
Perhaps Nate Thurmond already knew all that, because he seems to live each day as if it's going to end at 5:04 p.m.
It's not that Thurmond packs so much into each day -- although he does that, too. It's more that he would not have had to apologize for much had he been one of the people who signed off on those cruel San Francisco freeways on Oct. 17.
Thurmond is a compelling mix of seemingly contradictory elements: He's dignified without being aloof, highly accessible without begging. It's hard to find anybody who doesn't like him. And although those qualities won't bring you immortality, you could do a lot worse. Many people in his position have.
So there's still a story to tell, a darn good story, a story that is made even better, perhaps, by the resounding impermanence of it all.
It's a good match, Nate and San Francisco -- a pair of architectural impossibilities that have withstood physical and psychological assaults and emerged intact.
He, at an inch shy of 7 feet tall, is a seemingly unworkable combination of spindly legs, huge hands and massive biceps that somehow manages to move with uncommon elegance. His city is an absurd assortment of steep hills, skinny Victorian buildings and neverending concrete, all of which somehow come together to form a place of transcendent beauty.
Twelve years after he retired from pro basketball and 15 years after he was traded away from the Golden State Warriors, Nate Thurmond, 48, former resident of Brownlee Court in Akron, still gets the kind of reception Douglas MacArthur got upon returning to the Philippines.
Thurmond's days on the basketball court are only part of the reason. Not that he couldn't play a little: A mere four people in history have grabbed more rebounds -- fellows named Chamberlain, Russell, Jabbar and Hayes.
But Thurmond's ongoing appeal in the Bay Area can be attributed just as much to his aforementioned personality, which stands as testament to the able parenting of Andrew and Leala Thurmond of Akron, ages 81 and 78.
If Nate owns San Francisco in the figurative sense, though, he doesn't own it literally. And he wants to.
In spite of the dreaded fault line, the City by the Bay is so appealing to so many people that housing prices are outrageous. It's the kind of place where you can pay $4 million for a home and not get a garage. The median home price is $257,000, highest in the country. A fellow needs megabucks to operate in the style to which Thurmond is accustomed.
He's not struggling, mind you. One look at the handmade 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow II with the "NATE 42" license plates, the custom silver-gray paint job and the rich leather-and-wood interior provides evidence that the $300,000 salaries he received in the mid-`70s were not completely frittered away.
However, the former Warrior, Chicago Bull and Cleveland Cavalier is not even in the same financial league as a friend who once visited his Diamond Heights house -- Bill Cosby. Then again, who is?
Nate would like to be. So after nine months of research, planning and construction, Thurmond is plunging, with both 40-inch arms, into a new business venture, a venture he hopes will become the ribs version of Domino's Pizza.
Big Nate's Barbecue was scheduled to open sometime this fall, complete with home delivery and, eventually, a network of franchises. At least that's the plan.
Dreams of increased cash flow are not the only reason Thurmond is entering a risky new business. He also is dreaming of a day when the people who greet him on the street and interview him on the talk shows will ask first about his business achievements, rather than his athletic achievements.
"It always intrigued me to be able to sit behind a desk," says Thurmond, doing just that at the unfinished office above his unfinished restaurant. "I had the God-given ability to play basketball. And I was given enough intelligence to try this. But I have to work at it harder than I did basketball.
"So this is important to me. It's like being somebody again in another field."
In Thurmond's scenario, his barbecue operation also will offer fellow blacks a badly needed example of entrepreneurial success. The only black franchising triumph, Thurmond says, is the Famous Amos chain, and its creator recently sold out.
At the very least, Thurmond wants to be mentioned in the same breath as other black athletes who have grown far beyond the world of bouncing balls. He points to people such as Julius Erving, the ex-basketball marvel who now owns, among other things, a huge Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Spend a few days with Thurmond and you come away with the impression that he is attacking his new venture with the same fire and attention to detail that carried him into seven All-Star games and the Hall of Fame.
He gives you monologues about the merits of various napkins, boxes and bibs. At his office, he turns a tiny plastic condiment container around in his long fingers and tells you why it is worth the three cents more he will have to pay for it than the container sitting on the desk.
He takes you to Oakland, where he checks on the progress of two 12,000 pound barbecue pits being constructed out of a special concrete that withstands high temperatures. Although these pits cost more than metal pits and are harder to clean, the metal pits, Thurmond says, just don't produce the right taste.
He has agonized over the proper logos, marketing approaches and color schemes. Trying to learn everything he can about attracting the masses, he has picked the brains of local entrepreneurs in unrelated fields, such as rock `n' roll maven Bill Graham.
The restaurant itself is on San Francisco's Folsom Street, in a resurgent downtown district known as South of Market. The property offers that rarest of San Francisco commodities -- a parking lot.
The lot will enable Thurmond's delivery people to pick up the dinners at a side door and provide customer parking when a small seating section eventually is opened.
Mindful of lawsuits over accidents caused by Domino's drivers attempting to meet the company's half-hour delivery promise, Thurmond will send all of his delivery people to driver-training school. More significantly, perhaps, he will refuse to guarantee a specific delivery time.
The opening of Big Nate's was pushed back two months by construction delays. And, although the earthquake did not damage the restaurant (or Thurmond's home) and he still hoped to open by Thanksgiving, the quake seemed likely to further slow things because many of the people he is working with are based in Oakland. As of late October, damage to the Bay Bridge and the Nimitz Freeway made Oakland virtually unreachable.
There was one good omen: The monstrous barbecue pits were completed, transported across the bay and placed inside the restaurant less than three hours before the earthquake hit.
"I've been through a lot of quakes," Thurmond said by phone two days after the deadly jolt, "but that was different than any of the others."
He was driving home from the restaurant at the time. He saw sidewalks undulating and power lines swaying. While other drivers scampered from their cars, he decided the safest place, in light of dangling wires, was inside the car. He carefully continued his journey and arrived home without a scratch.
He considers earthquakes to be San Francisco's version of Ohio's tornadoes or South Carolina's hurricanes. This one, though, certainly had his attention. Even before the quake, there was no shortage of things to occupy Thurmond and his two partners, each of whom brings along a different area of expertise. One partner is a female banking wizard, the other a male advertising and marketing type. Nate serves not only as the household name, but as the food expert.
For 10 years, he operated a soul-food restaurant, The Beginning, named in honor of his maternal grandmother, who taught him to cook and was the beginning of the family tree as he knows it. The restaurant boomed for seven years, then slipped as the neighborhood began to change. Still, he says, he was able to sell it for a nice pile of money.
The worst part about the old operation was having to hang around so much. "If you're a quote-unquote celebrity owner, people expect to see you there," he says. "I didn't like that part of it. This business here, it doesn't matter. All they want is a good product and good service."
He has plenty of other things to do, anyway. In addition to launching Big Nate's, Thurmond has signed with a television station to do 23 half-hour pregame shows before Warrior contests.
He also is continuing his duties as the Warriors' "director of community relations," which mostly involves making speeches. It's a job he took eight years ago on the condition that he wouldn't have to show up at the office.
Being tied down -- to anything -- has never been high on Thurmond's agenda. His womanizing is legendary. During his playing days, he had a little black book that grew to the size of a Michener novel. But even Joe Namath eventually settled down. And today, on the brink of 50, Nate Thurmond has, too.
For the last six years, he's had a live-in relationship with Pennsylvania native Marci Kollar, 44, a pleasant, quiet blonde, whom he met at a downtown department store. Technically, though, he's still a bachelor. And after singing Kollar's praises, he adds, with a laugh: "But I don't want to close the door all the way, you know what I'm saying?"
Although the little black book is gone, the memories remain. And Thurmond cherishes every one.
Well, almost every one. There was that little incident back in `74, the one he'd rather his parents didn't have to read about again.... We'll keep it short.
One morning, he loaned a "lady friend" his Datsun, because her own car was in the shop. Later that day, she noticed his prized Rolls parked outside a restaurant, and popped in to see him. He was with another woman. The situation gradually deteriorated, and eventually he watched in horror as the first woman crashed his Datsun into his Rolls. More than once.
Because she did it intentionally, his insurance company wouldn't cover the repairs. Ever get an estimate for body work on a Rolls?
Generally, though, things worked out better than that. Just imagine, if you will, the opportunities for a healthy, wealthy male living in San Francisco during the late `60s and early `70s, during those glorious pre-AIDS, pre-herpes, post-Pill days.
"I think most people, if given the opportunity to travel, if given the opportunity to be well-known, if given the opportunity to make more money than the average person, are probably going to lead a livelier lifestyle," Thurmond says in the deep voice you'd expect from a man of his height.
"I had fun with it. And I didn't do it in a malicious way. There are a lot of women I run into today that I dated in the past who -- we can still carry on a conversation. I didn't tell them they were the only woman I was seeing. I always was honest. One reason," he adds with a laugh, "was that I was 6-foot-11 and everybody always saw me."
That's typical Thurmond candor. Although he declines to show off his house because he long ago promised Kollar that it would be their sanctuary from public scrutiny, in every other way he is open, accommodating and almost brutally honest. Ask about his annual roast for Special Olympics, for instance, and he volunteers that his motives are not purely altruistic.
"It's a two-way street. My event is on TV [in Sunday prime-time, no less]. It's called the Nate Thurmond Gold Medal Roast. So I get a lot of juice out of that.... It's going to help my business."
It's also helped Special Olympians to the tune of $181,000 in two years. Celebrity participants have included Wilt Chamberlain, Rick Barry, John Madden, Bill Russell, Edwin Moses and Sen. Pete Wilson. For next spring's blowout, Thurmond is hoping to land Whoopi Goldberg.
The big guy also volunteers the fact that one of his 1970s' romantic liaisons produced a son, Adam, 13. Adam lives with his mother, who today, is married to "a nice gentleman who is very fond of Adam," Thurmond says.
Thurmond pays child support and visits the boy often. He says his son, although tall, seems to have more potential as a student than a ballplayer, which suits the father just fine.
Nate is not a slow study, either. It took just the one episode of Demolition Derby to teach him that any incident he's involved in outside of his house will end up all over the local papers. So he watches his step.
"I'm not going to tell you I'm a saint," he says, "but if I'm going to do something, I go home. I'm not going to be acting like a fool in the street."
Today, his public pastime, his main entertainment, is dining out. He and Kollar take a couple of Akron visitors to a fancy Chinese restaurant near Fisherman's Wharf, where Thurmond displays an impressive fluency with the menu and wine list. As he tools around later in the Rolls, he seems to know every restaurant in the city and the name of every owner.
However, unless Big Nate's Barbecue becomes an absolute monster, Thurmond will forevermore be known mainly as a guy who gobbled up basketballs during 11 years with the Warriors, one dreary year with the Chicago Bulls and one last blast of glory with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
By the time he joined the Cavs in 1975, Thurmond was 34, a fossil in pro basketball terms. Time and two knee operations (he eventually would need a third) had eroded his skills considerably. But his experience and fiery spirit fueled a team chemistry that led a bunch of ordinary players into a serious run at the NBA title -- the legendary "Miracle of Richfield."
"Nate was the catalyst, the man who brought it all together," says longtime Cavs' radio announcer Joe Tait. "He was the spirit of that club."
Northeast Ohio fell in love with the shot-blocking giant from Akron. It is a measure of the area's adoration for Thurmond that his jersey is one of only three ever retired by the Cavs -- even though he played less than two full seasons here. (The same No. 42, in a different color, hangs from the rafters of the Oakland Coliseum Arena.)
The Cavs -- and their fans -- were the talk of basketball during that 1975-76 season. Former Boston Celtic star Dave Cowens calls those Coliseum playoff crowds the loudest he ever heard anywhere. The noise was so awesome that Thurmond's brother, Ben, tape-recorded the roars for Nate as a souvenir. Although Nate still has the tape, he hasn't played it in ages. He is proud of his basketball career and is delighted to answer questions about it, but you can sit with him at dinner for two hours and he won't bring it up. He shies away from other retired athletes who want to talk constantly about the good old days.
"I'm really happy with what I've done," he says, "but who cares anymore? It really doesn't do me any good [to think about it]. I'm not just saying that because it sounds good. It doesn't do me any good."
He jokes that the only thing he misses from basketball is the first and the 15th of the month. But he later admits that leaving the game created a void.
"I miss the adulation," he says. "People still know who I am, but they're not cheering me three times a week, calling me 'Nate the Great' and all that."
What he misses most, though, is "the camaraderie with 11 other guys. I'm a people person. I have a lot of male friends, and I enjoy the kind of camaraderie you get when you're fighting for the same thing and you travel a lot together. It's like a big family. I miss that a lot."
Thurmond's family was small. In addition to father Andrew (6-foot-3) and mother Leala (5-foot-11), there was only older brother Ben (6-foot-1), who for 20 years has taught retarded students at Cleveland's East Tech.
Ben, 50, flies to San Francisco at least once a year for his "little" brother's Special Olympics roast. But their parents no longer visit the West Coast because of a growing dislike of air travel. So Nate returns to Akron once or twice a year.
When he does, he spends much of his time at his parents' comfortable brick house near Buchtel High, where they've lived since he headed off to Bowling Green State University in 1959. The house is just a few miles from where he grew up, in the shadow of Central High (now Central-Hower).
"My parents were perfect," says Thurmond. "They didn't have a lot of money (his father labored for 31 years at Firestone), but there was a lot of love in the house and they provided the material things that were necessary.
"The thing that they did was give me a sense of balance about who I am: I'm not important; I shouldn't act important. If people treat me good, I should treat them well. They made me understand that."
He pauses. A catch develops in his voice. About 10 years ago, he continues, he did what many children wish they had done before the chance slipped away. He sat his mother and father down and thanked them.
"I called my parents into the bedroom and I told them, 'You know, when I was a kid I never went to anybody else's house and wished that I lived there, and I never went to anybody else's house and said I wish these people were my parents.'
"I'm glad I was able to say that before it was too late."
Back in Akron -- 2,200 miles away -- Mrs. Thurmond beams when complimented on her child-rearing techniques.
"We didn't want to bring them up to make them hate us, you know, so we sort of let them have a little freedom," she says, while her husband nods in agreement. "But we tried to make them understand that certain things had to be done and certain things you could not do. So we finally got them on the right track and they grew up pretty nice."
That's for sure. Despite his bigger-than-life success, Mrs. Thurmond's younger son never lugged around the chip found on the shoulders of the other superstar centers of his era, Chamberlain and Russell. Even today, Thurmond continues to act with grace even in the face of unmitigated rudeness.
An example? A woman approaches him near the Golden Gate Bridge, interrupts his conversation and demands, "Do you play basketball?"
Confronted by such a buffoon, Chamberlain used to fire back sarcastically, "No, I'm a jockey."
Yet Thurmond -- when now asked this same, insensitive question for perhaps the 400,000th time -- answers politely, saying he used to play but retired. He also keeps walking, unwilling to stop and rehash his life story for a woman who has made it clear she views him as a freak.
It's just the right response: Polite but proud. Approachable but not a captive.
"I've said often," notes Cleveland announcer Tait, "that my most memorable Cavalier [during two decades of covering the team] was Nate Thurmond -- on and off the court."
Yes, Nate's mother has a right to be pleased. Although she still worries about him falling in with "the wrong crowd," she is quite happy with the way things have gone thus far. She even seems to have forgiven him for quitting his piano lessons.
That was a major disappointment at the time, especially considering that a friend had given the family a piano that wouldn't fit into the friend's house. When Nate quit, Leala Thurmond and her son came to an agreement: Do what you want and we'll back you up -- as long as you do your best.
In retrospect, neither Nate nor brother Ben seemed cut out for music. "It just wasn't there," says Mrs. Thurmond. "I don't think either one of them can carry a tune in a bucket."
Well, Ma, for your information, Nate did a decent job of accompanying Bruce Springsteen on Tougher Than the Rest one afternoon in the BWM 528e, his relatively measly "working" car. But, yes, he seems to have been a little better-suited for basketball.
He managed to ring up more than 14,000 points and 14,000 rebounds -- despite playing fewer than 1,000 professional games.
Keep in mind that Thurmond's knee injuries came in the days before arthroscopic surgery. Back then, the doctor had to lay open the entire knee and sew it back up with 30 stitches. Had Thurmond been healthier, as healthy as Chamberlain or Russell, his career statistics would have been almost frightening. (The good news is that today, Thurmond has no trouble walking and can do pretty much what he wants, in moderation.)
Although Akron has long been a basketball hotbed, only one other Akron native has even visited the same basketball planet as Thurmond. That's the late Gus Johnson, a Central High teammate who went on to soar with the Baltimore Bullets. Johnson's death in 1987 from cancer was, of course, a blow to Thurmond.
Thurmond mentions a Beacon Journal photo of himself and Johnson embracing at a testimonial banquet three months before Johnson's death, a photo that is framed and on display at Nate's house. He talks about Johnson's awesome basketball skills, about the way Johnson helped Nate's game, about the way Johnson taught him lessons about life.
"Gus was a man's man. Everybody liked him. Everybody liked him.
"And he had a way with people, from the guy who was a bum on the street to a banker. Gus had a little bit of chit-chat for every one of them....
"He was the best from Akron. He was the best."
Nate Thurmond could just as easily have been talking about Nate Thurmond.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.